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How Fuel Cells Work

Types of Fuel Cells

The fuel cell will compete with many other energy­ conversion devices, including the gas turbine in your city's power plant, the gasoline engine in your car and the battery in your laptop. Combustion engines like the turbine and the gasoline engine burn fuels and use the pressure created by the expansion of the gases to do mechanical work. Batteries convert chemical energy back into electrical energy when needed. Fuel cells should do both tasks more efficiently.

A fuel cell provides a DC (direct current) voltage that can be used to power motors, lights or any number of electrical appliances.

There are several different types of fuel cells, each using a different chemistry. Fuel cells are usually classified by their operating temperature and the type of electrolyte they use. Some types of fuel cells work well for use in stationary power generation plants. Others may be useful for small portable applications or for powering cars. The main types of fuel cells include:

Polymer exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC)

The Department of Energy (DOE) is focusing on the PEMFC as the most likely candidate for transportation applications. The PEMFC has a high power density and a relatively low operating temperature (ranging from 60 to 80 degrees Celsius, or 140 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit). The low operating temperature means that it doesn't take very long for the fuel cell to warm up and begin generating electricity. We?ll take a closer look at the PEMFC in the next section.

Solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC)

These fuel cells are best suited for large-scale stationary power generators that could provide electricity for factories or towns. This type of fuel cell operates at very high temperatures (between 700 and 1,000 degrees Celsius). This high temperature makes reliability a problem, because parts of the fuel cell can break down after cycling on and off repeatedly. However, solid oxide fuel cells are very stable when in continuous use. In fact, the SOFC has demonstrated the longest operating life of any fuel cell under certain operating conditions. The high temperature also has an advantage: the steam produced by the fuel cell can be channeled into turbines to generate more electricity. This process is called co-generation of heat and power (CHP) and it improves the overall efficiency of the system.

Alkaline fuel cell (AFC)

This is one of the oldest designs for fuel cells; the United States space program has used them since the 1960s. The AFC is very susceptible to contamination, so it requires pure hydrogen and oxygen. It is also very expensive, so this type of fuel cell is unlikely to be commercialized.

Molten-carbonate fuel cell (MCFC)

Like the SOFC, these fuel cells are also best suited for large stationary power generators. They operate at 600 degrees Celsius, so they can generate steam that can be used to generate more power. They have a lower operating temperature than solid oxide fuel cells, which means they don't need such exotic materials. This makes the design a little less expensive.

Phosphoric-acid fuel cell (PAFC)

The phosphoric-acid fuel cell has potential for use in small stationary power-generation systems. It operates at a higher temperature than polymer exchange membrane fuel cells, so it has a longer warm-up time. This makes it unsuitable for use in cars.

Direct-methanol fuel cell (DMFC)

Methanol fuel cells are comparable to a PEMFC in regards to operating temperature, but are not as efficient. Also, the DMFC requires a relatively large amount of platinum to act as a catalyst, which makes these fuel cells expensive.

In the following section, we will take a closer look at the kind of fuel cell the DOE plans to use to power future vehicles -- the PEMFC.

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